Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Charter school proposed for Blaine County

Mountain School group looking at expanding and becoming public

Express Staff Writer

Beekeeper Tom Harned, center, and Mountain School outdoor-skills teacher John DeLorenzo, right, teach children about honeybees at the Bellevue-area school last year. Express file photo

A group of parents and supporters of the private Mountain School near Bellevue, which minimizes technology in the classroom and focuses on academic rigor and sustainable living, is seeking to establish a public charter school in Blaine County.

If all goes according to plan, the private Mountain School would close in the spring of 2014 and a new charter school, emphasizing the same educational values, would be opened the following fall. The new school would tentatively be called the Wood River Waldorf Methods School.

Currently there are four private schools in Blaine County, in addition to eight public schools, but there are no charter schools.

The Mountain School currently teaches by the Waldorf educational methodology, which views education as an art and presents subject matter in a way intended to parallel a child’s experiences. In addition to basic academics, the Mountain School and other Waldorf schools throughout the world emphasize “educating the heart, head and hand,” sustainable living, gardening and farming, minimal use of technology and experiential learning.

Mountain School Director Mary Gervase said the Waldorf method is the “largest independent school movement in the world right now.”

Currently, there are about 1,000 Waldorf schools in 91 different countries. In the United States there are 159 private Waldorf schools, such as Mountain School, and 44 public Waldorf schools.

Obtaining charter school status would allow the school to expand from a current K-3 enrollment of 34 to an initial K-5 enrollment of 140 students. Long-term plans are to expand the school to grades K-12.

Gervase, a longtime educator who also serves as an educational consultant to Idaho State University, Boise State University and the Idaho State Department of Education, said the idea of forming a Waldorf methods charter school was brought to her by parents and supporters of the Mountain School. Furthermore, she was asked to spearhead the effort.

While planning has been going on for several months, the idea is still at the starting gate when it comes to navigating the regulatory process.

Gervase said the group is awaiting nonprofit status before it can file a petition to become a charter school with the Idaho State Department of Education.

On Tuesday night, Gervase presented the initial plan to the Blaine County School District at the November regular school board meeting. She said earlier Tuesday that she wasn’t sure how the district and the board would react to the plan but she was hopeful that they would be supportive.

Under Idaho law, a school district’s approval is not necessary for establishment of a publicly funded charter school within the district’s boundaries. If a school district won’t authorize establishment of a charter school, then it can be done by the Idaho Public Charter School Commission.

There are currently 44 charter schools in Idaho. Only 14 of them were authorized by school districts, with the remainder authorized by the commission.

For the 2011-2012 school year, the state of Idaho provided $77.6 million in funding for the 44 schools.

Charter schools in Idaho begin forming in 1998, the year that the state Legislature approved the Public Charter Schools Act, which authorized the funding of schools that were operated outside the mainstream school district institutions.

Michelle Clement Taylor, school choice coordinator for the Idaho State Department of Education, said the number of charter schools continues to grow as more parents want more say in how their children are educated.

Taylor noted that a few charter schools in Idaho have been formed and then had to close because of funding issues, since charter schools are not allowed to issue bonds for more money.

Taylor said the majority of the charter schools in Idaho were formed by the Idaho Public Charter School Commission because it’s not uncommon for a school district to be “resistant.”

The resistance comes from the fact that charter schools take students and state funding away from school districts.

“The money follows the child,” Taylor said. “It’s just the same as if a child moves to a new school district, the money follows the child.

“In terms of academics, generally the charter school students perform better than the non-charter school students.”

Gervase estimates that the startup in 2014 of the Wood River Waldorf Methods School would require state funding of about $616,000 for the initial 140 students envisioned. She said the school would continue fundraising efforts, such as now done at Mountain School, to fund things such as the operating farm at Mountain School.

“I think the time is right for this model of education to come here,” Gervase said. “While I think we have excellent schools in Blaine County now, I believe bringing this new education system to the valley adds value to the whole educational system.

“There’s just a lot of interest in an education that’s more holistic and has a more reasonable approach to technology,” she added. “I just feel it’s so important for us to have choice in the district.”

Terry Smith:

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